Dark skies over Sunny Mount Park: PART 2
I am a Milton resident and this series contains opinions—mine, and those of fellow Milton residents. The objective of this series is two-fold: to help everyday Miltonians find information, and provide raw insight to local elected officials when it comes to residents’ perspectives. This discussion is meant to facilitate connections between local government and everyday residents when advocating for Milton neighbourhoods.
The expectations that everyday citizens have of elected officials and the expectations that elected officials have of everyday citizens seem to be, at times, disharmonious. At the heart of this conversation are Sunny Mount Park and its fiery residents. Fiery because they are feeling desperate for answers that aren’t coming easily. They’ve come together, they’ve sought information, they’ve done their homework, they’ve participated in action campaigns. But, if you ask them, residents will tell you that they feel as much in the dark as they did when this issue began last year.
Sunny Mount Park on Ruhl Drive in Milton is a large neighbourhood park that has become a beloved facet of life in the Willmott neighbourhood. Within a 2013 Town of Milton document (Report# CORS-025-13), the park is described as a “neighbourhood park on a former farmstead in the Willmott Neighbourhood. Park amenities will include multi-use trails with lighting, turf and natural areas, playground, spray pad, access drive with parking areas, new planting, a custom park pavilion, site furnishings, and an area for off-leash dogs.”
A developer has plans to build a three-storey commercial building with underground parking and an extensive new laneway through the park, which residents argue will destroy the park and the benefits of its many neighbourhood uses, and which could cause traffic chaos and dangerous situations in a residential neighbourhood. Homeowners say they were promised the park as a premium when they bought homes in the area. Residents want to know how and why parts of the land were parceled out and sold. They’re asking “How did this happen?” and they’re wondering if the town will fight for them.
How are residents supposed to advocate for their Milton neighbourhoods? Who is responsible for keeping residents informed, or for advocating on their behalf? At the heart of Sunny Mount Park is a group of Miltonians begging for answers. They want to know how to speak to the right people and how to organize the right kinds of action items. They say that they feel they’re running into roadblocks at every turn.
Milton is one of Canada’s fastest growing population centres. Municipal growth inevitably includes development—but residents and municipalities theoretically have the power to decide what will be developed, where, and the type of growth that is prescribed for a region. Building projects and business opportunities are important for supporting local economic development in Canadian municipalities. But like most situations and plans, there may be some plans which are good and there may be plans which are just plain bad. In towns like Milton, citizens are generally vocal, expressive and involved. In Milton, citizens hold tight to a sense of belonging, ownership, and community pride. The Town of Milton is a big, little community—this is generally our town culture.
When Miltonians feel they are being put between a rock and hard place, they turn to local elected officials for help and guidance. In Sunny Mount Park, the local activists who make up the group called Save Sunny Mount Park (SSMP) feel they’ve exhausted efforts to engage local elected officials and they keep coming up empty-handed.
Why was Sunny Mount Park divided up and parts of it sold to a developer? The town has acknowledged that perhaps mistakes were made.
Why was it re-zoned? Residents were reportedly told it was to accommodate engineering construction and an addition to a heritage building, which has not been maintained and which continues to become more decrepit. When the plans emerged for a three-storey commercial building with an underground parking garage in the middle of the park, residents were flabbergasted. Says one SSMP member, “Council wanted to change the zoning and they did the bare minimum notifying residents. A small little article in the paper…it was sneaky.”
“We have stayed very involved, we were told that when the developer purchased that property, they had to bring it up to code and maintain it. It’s falling apart.” The members of SSMP say they have had little guidance. They’ve been fighting the proposed development with petitions, meetings, neighbourhood information sharing, and they voiced their concerns at the Town of Milton Committee of the Whole meeting that took place on March 6, 2017. Members of SSMP now refer to this meeting as the big meeting. At the big meeting, the developer’s representative made a reported concession to submit revised plans. However, the original three-storey plans were submitted. “The architect blatantly lied. The developers said ‘We have listened to what the community said, and we have changed the plan.’” The decision is now in the hands of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), and once again residents feel like they have been misled.
I reached out to the developer’s agent, architect Brian Williams, by email and twice by phone. During the first call, he identified himself and said that he had no comment for us. The second time I called Mr. Williams, the man answering the phone refused to speak to me and hung up. Williams is listed as the developer’s agent on the signage at Sunny Mount Park.
Is it any wonder that residents don’t know how to access information? That they feel blind in this fight? “We don’t have advice available to us without paying tens of thousands of dollars to a lawyer, planner, whoever it is to help us.” SSMP members share the floor in discussions; meetings in the park take place as open conversations.
What is it that residents want? “Consultation. That would help us to know what we’re doing. This is where we rely on our town councillors. Should we be fundraising? Making more petitions?” Residents say they don’t know where their efforts are best spent.
“Council made the bed. One councillor had to step out with a conflict of interest, which bothers us. Is this the one who once told the developer to go ahead and try [to get the development approved]? We asked at the [big] meeting who made that comment, they wouldn’t tell us who said that.” This resident’s voice trembles as he speaks. He says that he is frustrated.
Sunny Mount Park is located in Ward 7. Ward 7 Councillor, Rick Di Lorenzo has been engaging with members of SSMP in discussions. One resident states that “Rick has been okay, but he puts in all his [Facebook] posts ‘I’m not allowed to speak for the council.’ We get a lot of lip service. He says he is advocating, but there is no real action.”
Residents say they feel defeated. Another member comments that “Rick’s posts on Facebook feels like he’s talking to make himself look good, that’s how it feels. His hands are tied. But are his hands really tied? He has totally failed us. He says I’m on your side, but he’s lost credibility, there is no real action. No outreach or advocacy from Council.”
“This is a community, we need to make good decisions. This is why we live here, using community parks, and raising families.” One of the mothers in the group has her arm around her daughter as she says this. There have been tears from the kids who play here. The park is regularly used by neighbouring Anne J. MacArthur Public School students, and by neighbourhood children who feel the park is theirs. They have named the frequent feathered visitors to the park, including Sammy the owl. Ava, 9, has been present with her family each time I’ve met residents at the park. Her mom tells me that Ava is normally shy, but Ava has been an outspoken advocate for the park since this issue began.
Some town councillors are included in the online SSMP Facebook group. Earlier this month, Councillor Di Lorenzo agreed to meet residents at the park to discuss their concerns. Following are some of the comments made by Councillor Di Lorenzo in the context of the community meeting in the park. Councillor Di Lorenzo answered some difficult questions, and he was the only local elected official present.
Councillor Di Lorenzo stated:
- That he believes it will be the town’s position to oppose the development.
- The town has bylaws but the town doesn’t always enforce them. In regards to the unsafe and decrepit building, Di Lorenzo stated that “In my opinion, there is very little you can do…I have seen so many heritage buildings left unrepaired.”
- Di Lorenzo said that before he was on council, (CORRECTION to previous text, it was not Councillor Di Lorenzo who produced the report) the town conducted a report about a daycare business for the heritage building addition and “The report was bullshit.” The town didn’t receive notable interest out of the report. He added, “The town will do anything as long as they don’t have to spend money.”
- Di Lorenzo recommended speaking to the town planner, Aaron Raymond, as well as stating that he had given residents Raymond’s name and that Raymond had received “zero calls.” Residents responded to this with scoffs, stating that they still have no idea who to call and when they have called to speak to the town, they are often deferred elsewhere.
Councillor Di Lorenzo was candid. He seemed very present and that he was making an effort to ensure that residents felt heard. But he was also clearly uncomfortable when asked to speak for the town. He repeatedly stated that he could not speak for the town. He concluded his statements by saying that he “Loves being on Council. It is the greatest pleasure of my life…Voting on this sale was a mistake on Council’s part.”
Despite his comments, residents still feel that trust has been eroded and they’re being left to fight this battle alone. All Milton ward councillors were given the opportunity to comment on this situation. We also asked them to respond to concerns that residents feel left in the dark in situations like this, where developers and the town are making plans and residents have no idea where to turn for information or advocacy. As councillors reply, we’ll update this article including their comments.
Most importantly it needs to be restated that even when residents do start asking questions, they seem to be caught up in a maze filled with jargon, paperwork which is incomprehensible to the average person, and stonewalled at times by those involved, whether the developers, their agents or councillors concerned about speaking out of turn.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
As neighbours, as residents, we have to ask tough questions and do our homework. We also have to be respectful of the commitments that elected officials make to serving the community. In an online world, there are many opportunities to fire comments at officials, and valid points might be lost in the noise.
Maybe as citizens, we need to be better about reading the notices shared by the town and by our ward councillors. Perhaps we need to take a more active interest in council meetings and plans for the region. Then again, there are those who will tell you that this is the job our ward councillors are meant to do on our behalf. In any case, even as residents have been involved and informed in the case of Sunny Mount Park…this has not helped them.
As someone who moderates a local online forum, I can tell you that people do speak disrespectfully sometimes, just because they can. Is every opinion or snarky comment valid? Not necessarily. Nor are comments invalid simply because they’re snarky. It’s also important to think critically. On the flip side, our elected officials must remember that their foremost responsibility is serving the community and they ought to be supported in this role by all concerned. They have been elected by everyday people. We look to them to help us, to speak for us, to fight for us, and to tell us the truth whether it is something we wish to hear or not. This is my opinion. But I too am just a Milton resident.
As for Miltonians that live near and use Sunny Mount Park, they’re left wondering…after all the unanswered questions, the broken promises, the misleading comments, “What if we go to the OMB and Council turns on us?” There is a pervasive lack of trust.
Says Councillor Di Lorenzo, “It’s my opinion that council acts differently when residents are involved.” So if there is but one action that residents should keep in mind, it is to stay involved.
We reached out to Senior Planner with the town, Aaron Raymond. We heard back from Jenna Patterson, Communications Advisor. Patterson is working with both the Planning and Economic Development teams. Her responses to our questions:
Planning staff are looking to bring a report to Council outlining the application and seeking Council direction/authorization to attend the Ontario Municipal Board in the coming month, our tentative date right now is July. Interested parties can speak at the meeting, but will need to sign up as a delegation through the Town’s Clerks department. With regards to the Ontario Municipal Board and participation, the following link outlines the various status’s available. On the Ontario Municipal Board’s website, under the heading “E-status” you can also find updates on the application (hearing dates, etc).
WATCH THE VIDEO REPLAY OF THE TOWN OF MILTON, COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE MEETING MARCH 6, 2017, CLICK HERE